The spectre of a bank failure has returned to US financial markets, driving shares lower and sending the cost of insuring against a bank collapse soaring once more.

US shares fell to 18 month lows overnight and will go lower when trading resumes overnight after banking giant Citigroup revealed plans to slash mortgage lending by $US45 billion. The US financial sector fell to the lowest level since May 2003; Citigroup fell 98 US cents to $US21.17, its lowest close since late 1998.

Our market fell more than 2%, or around 120 points, in the first 45 minutes of trading this morning as banks, financial stocks and property trusts copped another pounding.

The Bell Financial takeover of margin broker, Tricom fell over, but talks are continuing and Allco fell sharply to around 33 cents. Bank stocks fell 4%, as the NAB hit a three and a half year low of $27 after foreclosing on Allco Equity principals on a $110 million margin loan that is all but worthless.

With securitisation markets shut to all lenders around the world, Citigroup will cut assets as loans are repaid and will not take on new mortgages. It will try to sell 90% of the mortgages it does make, up from 65%, but this could be frustrated by the virtual closure of that market.

Overnight the cost to protect corporate bonds from default soared to record levels as hedge fund failures and rising bank funding costs stoked concern that a financial institution may collapse.

Overnight the Carlyle Group let its listed Carlyle Capital Corp go to the wall after it failed to meet margin calls of $US37 million on debts in its fund. Carlyle Capital raised around $US300 million in capital and invested it in $22 billion worth of high grade Triple A home mortgage bonds issued by the quasi US Government owned mortgage groups, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And the home equity figures from the US Federal Reserve should frighten everyone in the markets. The Fed says that in 2007 American homeowners’ percentage of equity fell below 50% for the first time since 1945.

The total value of equity also fell for the third straight quarter to $US9.65 trillion from a downwardly revised $US9.93 trillion in the third quarter. That’s a drop of $US280 billion in the last quarter of 2007 alone.

Figures also out yesterday show that more than 900,000 American households are in the foreclosure process, up 71% from a year ago. The American Mortgage Bankers Association said that represents 2.04% of all US mortgages, the highest rate in the report’s 36-year history.

And another 381,000 households, or 0.83% of borrowers, saw the foreclosure process start during the last quarter (another record), while the number of mortgage borrowers who were 30 days or more late on a payment is at its highest rate since 1985.

US bankruptcies were 28% higher last month than a year ago: it’s been harder to go bankrupt in the US for the past couple of years, so this is serious.

The latest Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index had US home prices falling 8.9% in the final quarter of 2007 compared with a year ago, that’s the steepest decline in the index’s 20-year history, And the slowdown in US employment hasn’t even started: tonight we get an update with the release of February’s jobless and unemployment figures.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey